Arrest made for Meshell Will murder

Jason Ferguson

Eight years after her body was found dumped in a wooded area just off a Pigtail Bridge on Iron Mountain Road in Pennington County, law enforcement believes they have found Meshell Will’s killer.
Richard Melvin Schmitz, 53, a former resident of Custer who was living near Hill City, was taken into custody at his home and charged with second-degree murder.
Nancy Herman, a Custer resident who for the past eight years has advocated for Will through social media and yearly vigils, said she started to shake and cry when she was told an arrest had been made.
“I think I had the police worried I was shaking so bad when they came and told me they arrested him,” she said. “I was so happy.”
It was Aug. 24, 2013, when Will was last heard from.
She texted her late sister Amanda Dillon, saying she was headed to Keystone and would talk to her later. Her body was found a week later near mile post 54 by a tourist snapping photographs in the wooded area between the higher and lower part of the road near one of the bridges.
Will, 38, had just moved to Custer in April from Killeen, Texas, yearning to escape a troubled past and find happiness through small town life, Dillon said in a 2013 Chronicle article.
When Will’s body was found Aug. 31, it was badly decomposed. She was wearing a T-shirt and capri-style sweat pants. Her identification was confirmed through fingerprints. She had been reported missing four days earlier, Aug. 27, by her coworkers at the former Wrangler Restaurant, where Custer State Farm and Heart of the Hills Catering are now located.
Dillon said at the time she wasn’t exactly sure how her sister ended up in her final resting place, but knew she didn’t get there by herself. She said her sister did not have a driver’s license, did not have a car and hadn’t driven in eight years.
Schmitz, Will’s boyfriend at the time according to past reports, was the last person seen with Will when they both checked into Brookside Motel in Keystone. Herman said in a past story the room was in Schmitz’s name and he turned in the room key the next day. She added the last time someone talked to Will was around 10:30 or 11 p.m. Aug. 24, when the hotel manager talked to her.
While in the past law enforcement would only say Schmitz was a person of interest, they now say he is a murder suspect.
Captain Tony Harrison of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office lauded the work of the Rapid City Police Department, the Custer County Sheriff’s Office and the S.D. Department of Criminal Investigation for working with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office for the past eight years to put together enough information to secure a warrant for Schmitz’s arrest.
“It’s a bunch of men and women who refused to give up on a victim of a crime or her family,” he said. “That’s what broke the case.”
While Will’s cause of death was once labeled suspicious or unknown, it is now listed as a homicide, although Harrison declined to give information as to how law enforcement believes Will was killed.
“I don’t want to go into that,” he said. “It’s a prosecutorial issue. But it was eight years of hard work. There were lots of pieces to the puzzle and we are able to slide them together.”
Harrison said whenever there is a crime investigated, particularly a murder, law enforcement always checks on who saw them last and works backward from there. As such, Schmitz was immediately a person of interest, as he was the last person to see her alive.
“Eight years later we were able to declare he was  a suspect,” Harrison said.
Harrison was present when Schmitz was arrested, but declined to comment on any reaction Schmitz gave when he was taken into custody.
Herman said she never gave up hope that Schmitz would be arrested, having long ago been convinced he was the person responsible for Will’s death. She said she never stopped calling law enforcement or advocating on behalf of Will.
“I never really lost hope. I kept calling and doing what I could,” she said. “Sometimes I would think they were shining on me saying they are still working on it. I was like, ‘Well, work faster.’”
Harrison said the work never stopped, even if the case faded out of the public eye over time. Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom would have never allowed work on the case to be stopped, Harrison said.
“That’s not the kind of person he is,” he said. “We owe it to the victims of crime to look out for them. Meshell could no longer speak for herself, so we had to speak for her. It spoke volumes for her when he placed him into custody.”
“We never gave up on the Meshell Will case,” Thom said in a press release. “After eight years of hard work, we’re pleased to finally arrest the person we believe is responsible for the crime. We never stopped conducting interviews, examining evidence and reviewing forensic material.”
Donna Talley, director of Women Escaping A Violent Environment (WEAVE) in Custer, said she was relieved when she learned of Schmitz’s arrest.
“I have really been praying about this. I’m just really thankful Meshell finally got justice,” she said.
Herman said, while it may sound corny, there was just something magnetic about Will, as she was one of those people when you see them coming down the street, you can’t help but smile.
“She wanted to get her life together and mend bridges that had been burned,” she said. “That touched me. There was just something about her. Something sweet.”
Herman laments all the time Schmitz has spent as a free man in the interim, saying she believes the criminal justice system failed to take him off the streets earlier. In one instance, Schmitz was charged with aggravated assault, with allegations of him attempting to cause bodily injury to another with a dangerous weapon.  After the preliminary hearing, the testimony revealed the victim did not observe what was used to cause the marks on her back and the state was unable to determine what was used. Therefore, the charge was reduced to simple assault.
Two women were granted restraining orders against Schmitz for stalking and domestic abuse, while two others applied for restraining orders and two others applied for such an order but were denied due to lack of evidence. He has also been convicted of  disorderly conduct and has served prison time for grand theft.
“He should be behind bars for the rest of his life with no parole,” she said. “I don’t ever want him out. He should never get out.”
That is now for the courts to decide, and since Will’s body was found in Pennington County, all court proceedings will happen at the Pennington County Courthouse. Herman will watch those proceedings closely and still holds out hope there will be more arrests made on what she believes were accomplices in covering up Will’s death.
In the meantime she plans to celebrate, saying she will crack a bottle of aging champagne to celebrate the arrest.
“I’ll giver her a toast and tell her we started down the path to justice, hopefully,” she said.
Harrison said gratification is not the word to use for the arrest, as there is a victim of a homicide to remember in this case, but he did say there is a sense of satisfaction when one considers both the hours of work put into the case, as well as Will’s family.
“Hopefully the family can get closure and move on to the next chapter of their lives,” he said.
Schmitz is being held without bond at the Pennington County Jail. Second-degree murder is punishable by life in prison.
Schmitz made his initial appearance in court to face the murder charge Monday.

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